A tale of three trails and two completely different days in the same short trip

 Location: I-90
 Length: 13.25 miles RT
 Elevation: 3759 feet
 Summit: 6259 feet
 Getting there: Drive I-90 to exit 47 and turn north. Take a right at the ‘T’ and drive east on FR58 about .2 miles and turn left. Head about 2.5 miles and turn left to the Franklin Falls trailhead just past Denny Creek Campground. Drive past the (most likely full) Franklin Falls TH to the end of the road and good luck parking!

 NW Forest Pass required

I had grown lazy since my last epic adventure tagging Glacier Peak and spent the last few weeks choosing my Xbox over Mailbox, my couch over Chair Peak, and McDonald’s over McClellan. Okay, maybe not that last one. Anyway, it was time for me to get back on the trail and snag another summit.

I chose to bag Kaleetan to break my trail fast and after reading beta on the approach, I was confident this would be a straightforward climb. Normally, I avoid the I-90 corridor hikes on the weekends due to the massive amounts of people flocking to the trails, but I figured if I got to the trailhead early enough, I’d miss most of the crowds going up.

Despite my best efforts to reach the Denny Creek Trailhead by 8am, I rolled in closer to 8:45 to an already overflowing parking lot. Ugh.

I was on the trail by 9am and set off at a hot pace, eager to reach Melakwa Lake and the real beginning of my day’s adventure.

Reflecting on this hike, it became apparent to me that this was really three completely different trails rolled into one; the wide, rolling path to Denny Creek, the rocky, uneven switchbacks up to Melakwa Lake, and the no-nonsense, disappearing boot path firing up the ridge to Kaleetan.

I quickly ate up the mile-ish to Denny Creek (9:15am) and took the opportunity to utilize the wide crossing to pass a few groups taking their time.

Having hiked to Melakwa Lake a few times, I was very familiar with the trail and pushed myself up and over the rocky switchbacks at a pretty good clip, pausing only to snap a pic or two. The sun was warming up in the clear sky above and I was thankful that most of the trail is shaded.

At 10:30am I reached Melakwa Lake and was surprised that there weren’t a million people there already. I did pass quite a few on my way up though, and it was still early.

After a quick break, I located the climber’s trail up the ridge to Kaleetan. Basically, aim for the backcountry toilet and then stay right. Seriously.

From the toilet, the boot path turns straight up the ridge and continues to do so for pretty much the entire way to point 5700. The trail forks a few times but is still pretty easy to follow as each fork would meander back and connect up with the other, all in a relentless bid to reach the top first.

More than once, the trail seemed to drop off the edge of the ridge into the talus far below, and I was forced to look around to search for signs of the route. Usually, the path was found shooting straight up a rock face requiring the liberal use of hands and vegetation assisted climbing.

I slowly picked my way along the ridge, navigating downed trees and more scrambling. Reaching Point 5700, I paused to take in the view, including Granite Mountain across the way, and a shy Rainier mostly hidden by the previously non-existent clouds. I didn’t know it at the time, but by the time I returned to this point, it was going to look much, much different.

From Point 5700, the trail continues to wind atop the ridge, sometimes plain as day, and sometimes hiding in the underbrush and trees – before dropping down a hundred feet or so on the west side of the ridge. Again, the trail is unforgiving in its footing and chose to drop straight down off the ridge.

At this point, I caught up to a couple who were taking a break halfway down the ridge and I slipped past them after saying hi. I continued along the path, backtracking a couple times in the talus field due to lack of cairns or other distinguishable trail evidence. By this time, I could see Kaleetan, so I just pointed my self towards it and made my own trail up the talus.

I reached the saddle below Kaleetan and stopped to chat with a gentleman who had just come down from the summit. We talked about our recent climbs and exchanged pleasantries for a bit before I continued on. By now, the clouds had really rolled in and the sun, which blazed bright against the blue skies that morning, had disappeared behind a thickening veil of grey.

I’ll take this opportunity to soap box: anytime anyone asks why I always carry a mid-layer, my down jacket, and my shell jacket in my pack, even if it’s sunny and 80 degrees out, it’s for occasions like this. The weather moves in fast in the mountains and I like to be prepared. Does it happen often? No. But I don’t mind the extra pound or two in my pack as security against sudden weather shifts. Pack your layers, kids!

Anyway, from the saddle, I stepped up the last bit of talus before the summit scramble. Looking up at the peak from the talus can be a bit disconcerting since no easy route seems to make itself apparent. However, once you reach the base, all becomes clear.

The route up to the summit has been listed as a Class 3 scramble which I can get behind. I definitely made liberal use of my hands in more than a few spots, but ultimately never felt uncomfortable or exposed. Bare in mind, I’m very comfortable on rocky scrambles, so your experience may vary.

I reached the summit of Kaleetan, 6259 feet, at 12:15  – 1.5 hours from Melakwa – just in time to catch the last glimpse of Snow Lake to the east before it was swallowed up by the enveloping clouds. Alas, no views were to be had today.

I poked around a bit for the summit register and came up empty handed so I consoled myself with my summit beer on the misty peak. A little while later I was joined by the couple I had passed on the approach. They were having fun taking pictures and I chatted with them a bit. The woman shared her home-made chocolate chip peanutbutter cookies which were especially delicious at 6200 feet! I forgot to ask their names, but if you end up reading this, thank you for sharing!

I spent about an hour on top of Kaleetan, relaxing and enjoying the swirling clouds from my lofty perch.

At 1:15, I reluctantly gave up hope that the weather would clear and decided to begin my descent. Once off the summit block, I entered a completely new world. Nothing looked familiar in the foggy environment that surrounded me. It’s amazing how much the weather can affect one’s surroundings in the mountains.

I made my way back down the trail and had to double back multiple times to ensure I was going the right way. I’m glad my GPS was working since I had to refer to it many times to keep me on track. I reached Point 5700, only recognizable by the large cairn on top, and searched in vain for the path down. I was met only by a sea of nebulous mist.

Referring again to my GPS, I pointed my feet in the general direction laid out on my digital map. The going was slow as I dropped elevation, but the fog dissipated with each step lower down the ridge. Soon, I could see the trail again, and I began to bound back to the shores of Melakwa.

I reached Melakwa at 2:30 and from there, the going was very fast. A mixture of bounding and running down the trail got me back to the trailhead at 3:45. I probably could have gotten there faster, but the rocky upper sections of the lake trail were doing a number on my knees and the increase in traffic caused me to pause on multiple occasions.

Kaleetan is a pretty great climb and the prominence of its snaggled tooth summit makes it look technical from afar. However, if you’re comfortable with a few scrambles, you should be fine. And hopefully you’ll get a better view as a reward!

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